Monday, April 25, 2011

A timely meditation on democracy

Phil Paine wrote a provocative "Seventh Meditation on Democracy" during the last federal election in Canada.  For this one, I'm reposting this excerpt (or you can read the whole thing here):
A few days ago, I was in the sub­way, and I over­heard a con­ver­sa­tion about our cur­rent national elec­tion. Two boys who, from their appear­ance, could have been no fur­ther along in school than grade nine or ten, were dis­cussing the tele­vised debates between the lead­ers of the five major polit­i­cal par­ties. What struck me, as I lis­tened in, was that the dis­cus­sion was cogent and intel­li­gent. One of the boys, who seemed the youngest, was par­tic­u­larly artic­u­late, and his opin­ions were not the sim­ple par­rot­ing of some adult he had heard, or the pur­suit of a party line. In fact, his analy­sis of the debate showed keener obser­va­tion and judg­ment than that of the pro­fes­sional com­men­ta­tors who dis­sected the debate after the broad­cast.

Now, I’m sure that these were excep­tional kids. It’s unlikely that there are many in their age group who share their inter­ests and skills. But it’s a sign that there is some­thing going on, under the sur­face of our soci­ety, that you would never guess by watch­ing tele­vi­sion or read­ing a news­pa­per. I grew up in a fam­ily where national and provin­cial pol­i­tics were argued at the din­ner table with gusto, and I have a clear mem­ory of the issues in an elec­tion held when I was ten years old. That was prob­a­bly an excep­tional envi­ron­ment. But I did not have access to the wealth of infor­ma­tion now avail­able on the inter­net. No amount of clev­er­ness is very use­ful if you have poor infor­ma­tion, so my capac­ity to ana­lyze was lim­ited. I doubt that I could have matched the sophis­ti­ca­tion demon­strated by the kids in the sub­way. Many peo­ple, of any age, are still prey to the tra­di­tional tools of obfus­ca­tion, button-pushing and appeals to prej­u­dice that politi­cians have suc­cess­fully deployed for cen­turies. How­ever, if some­one is fairly sharp, and raised with the infor­ma­tion tools now avail­able, they have a good chance of see­ing through these strat­a­gems. So you can expect there to start appear­ing a layer of young peo­ple who are rel­a­tively immune to the kind of silly-ass cam­paign­ing that our cur­rent gov­ern­ment relies upon. It will be very inter­est­ing to see what hap­pens when that layer of peo­ple, who were born with the inter­net, grows up and walks into the poll-booth. They will be dis­plac­ing a gen­er­a­tion that grew up with the much more pas­sive and homo­ge­neous medium of television.

One of the results may be that the elec­torate does some grow­ing up in a psy­cho­log­i­cal, as well as a phys­i­cal sense. One of the chief points that I’ve tried to put across in my “med­i­ta­tions on democ­racy” is that the core con­cept of democ­racy is self-respect. Self-respect is man­i­fested, in a healthy mind, by a will­ing­ness to take on the respon­si­bil­i­ties of an adult when one becomes an adult. The prin­ci­pal respon­si­bil­ity that an adult has is to gov­ern them­self. A child is born help­less, and must at first be con­trolled and guided by par­ents, in order to sur­vive at all. But, as the child grows older, the car­ing par­ent relin­quishes one aspect of con­trol after another, until adult­hood is reached, and the child becomes autonomous and self-governing. That is com­mon sense, under­stood by most peo­ple on the indi­vid­ual level. How­ever, on the level of col­lec­tive action, on the level of soci­ety, that com­mon sense les­son is rarely understood.

When peo­ple dis­cussing pol­i­tics talk about “lead­er­ship”, you know that they are encased in a prim­i­tive, pre-logical, and infan­tile state of mind. Peo­ple who seek lead­ers are sim­ply not grown up, and peo­ple who advance the claim of Lead­er­ship are attempt­ing to keep adults in a state of per­pet­ual child­hood. If to be an adult means to gov­ern one­self, then no adult should be seek­ing a “leader”. The pur­pose of democ­racy is not to “select a leader”. It is to select poli­cies. The mech­a­nism of democ­racy is not intended to choose some­one to gov­ern the peo­ple, but for the peo­ple to gov­ern them­selves. In ratio­nal demo­c­ra­tic thought, office hold­ers are not “lead­ers”, they are ser­vants. The pur­pose of an elec­tion is to 1) choose a pol­icy of admin­is­tra­tion and an over­all plan, 2) assign peo­ple to the rel­e­vant tasks, and 3) make sure they do what they are told to do. “Lead­er­ship” does not come into it. Vot­ers are not sup­posed to be “led”, they are sup­posed to be in charge. The last per­son I want to see hold pub­lic office is some strut­ting alpha-ape who claims the right to tell me what to do. If I see some­one run­ning for office who is flaunt­ing dom­i­nance sig­nals, claim­ing to have “vision” and telling me I need “lead­er­ship”, then my healthy, sane, adult response is to want to see such an ass­hole slapped down, hum­bled, and kicked out of pub­lic life. I want to see them replaced with some com­pe­tent per­son who will faith­fully carry out the instruc­tions they are given by the peo­ple. I am an adult, and a free man, so any­one who dares to claim to be my “leader” earns noth­ing but my con­tempt. My fun­da­men­tal her­itage as a Cana­dian is that the only legit­i­mate leader of me is me.

Cana­di­ans are sup­posed to know this. We are not some back­ward tribe of sav­ages danc­ing around a golden calf and wait­ing for a crack­pot Mes­siah to tell us what to do. We are sup­posed to be grown up enough not to be impressed by a tai­lored suit, a jut­ting jaw, or a man­u­fac­tured pub­lic­ity image. The polit­i­cal sys­tem we have built, slowly and pru­dently, out of dis­parate tra­di­tional sources — England’s slowly evolved par­lia­ment, New England’s town meet­ings, native Cana­dian coun­cils, the long fight for uni­ver­sal fran­chise, notions of auton­omy, indi­vid­ual rights, social equal­ity, and self-rule — should not be per­mit­ted to lapse into some kind of mys­ti­cal monar­chy, after all our strug­gles. That is pre­cisely why, in our sys­tem, the prime min­is­ter is not the head of state, and his or her gov­ern­ment can be called to account at any time, or dis­solved by a vote of no-confidence. In fact, the pres­ence of a prime min­is­ter is a mere super­sti­tious holdover, an arti­fact of prim­i­tive hier­ar­chi­cal thought that is fun­da­men­tally incom­pat­i­ble with democracy.

The only valid func­tion of a prime min­is­ter in our sys­tem is to “form a gov­ern­ment”, i.e. to select a cab­i­net and over­see the admin­is­tra­tion of what­ever laws the assem­bled par­lia­ment chooses to pass. Oth­er­wise, he is merely a min­is­ter like any other, elected to rep­re­sent his local rid­ing. It is the assem­bled mem­bers of par­lia­ment who are sup­posed to be mak­ing deci­sions, not the prime min­is­ter. A par­lia­ment can func­tion bet­ter with­out the office, and if we man­age to evolve our sys­tem fur­ther, it will even­tu­ally be abolished.

Peo­ple con­sis­tently con­fuse (because they have been encour­aged to con­fuse) a polit­i­cal party with gov­ern­ment. But a party is merely a pri­vate asso­ci­a­tion of cit­i­zens, some hold­ing office and some not, that sup­pos­edly shares some par­tic­u­lar opin­ions about pol­icy. Mem­bers of par­lia­ment may choose to belong to a polit­i­cal party, but their role in par­lia­ment is to pro­pose, debate, and vote on leg­is­la­tion for the well­be­ing of the coun­try, as rep­re­sen­ta­tives of their con­stituents. They are not sup­posed to be cogs or func­tionar­ies of what­ever party they belong to, and they are sup­posed to be answer­able to the elec­torate, not to their party lead­er­ship. The fact that Stephen Harper, the cur­rent prime min­is­ter, is the leader of his party (a pri­vate orga­ni­za­tion) should never be con­fused with the fact that he has been instructed by the Head of State, Michaëlle Jean, to select a cab­i­net and carry out pub­lic administration.

But what, in this sys­tem, actu­ally neces­si­tates there being a prime min­is­ter?


  1. So you think an MP is supposed to "go to the people" on every issue, either conduct some sort of poll or read his mail and do what the majority of the letter-writers say he should do?

    It sounds like you're advocating for a popular democracy, in which every decision is made by a plebiscite.

    My view is that in a representative democracy, the voters elect the representatives (MPs, Senators, Congressmen, delegates, deputies, and so forth) and expect them to exercise some judgment and discretion in representing their constituent's needs and desires.

    That may sometimes mean giving the people what they need rather than what they want. If an elected official does not do what his constiuents think is best, they always have the option of voting him out come the next election. But I do NOT want my congressman or senator to be a weathervane.

  2. Jeb (et all) - a Tale from Canada

    One of the major policy issues of a Federal election a number of years back was firearms controls.

    I am a rural resident. I like to think with four years of the Canadian Army Reserves, someone with a bit of firearms training and experience. (Make you own estimate of my personal opinions here, its not at all central to the story.)

    I spend a bit of time writing what I thought was a measured comment on how, as a rural resident, I thought the proposed law changes would impose serious problems (primarily related to animal control) in my own area. (Background, I was having raccoons tearing through walls actually INTO the inside of my house, and had twice had clearly rabid animals to destroy). I sent my opinions off to my local MP, my elected *representative*.

    I got a nice note back. 'Your views represent those I have received from many of my constituents, *I will follow those opinions when the vote comes*'. Very good, a representative who might actually represent the district.
    Except when the vote came, the MP voted as the *Party* (read Prime Minister) dictated.

    So I wrote him back. "I thought you told me you would represent the majority view of your constituents. What happened?", says I.
    I got a return response from that, which started :
    " Dear Mr Markewitz - are you calling me a *liar*?"
    Then continued to lecture me on 'How the Canadian Political System Works'. "If you don't like it, wait four years and vote us out.", says he.

    Now, I have been a responsible Citizen, perhaps more than some (ie Military Service) since at least 1972 (when I 'kissed the book'). Voting since I was able (like 1974). What I *don't* need is a lecture on Civics.

    What does it mean when you say you will do one thing and do the exact opposite?

    The system, and its application and implications, has changed significantly in my own life time. There is NO *representation* under the current evolution, where those standing for election flat out lie about what they intend, then after election implement any damn thing they personally like.

    We are so far past due for a massive change from the current 'first past the post' system. Mr Harper is a clear example of why what is currently in place no does not *serve* the Canadian population.

    *My* vote goes for Proportional Representation - and the first Party who *guarantees* they will implement it.

  3. Anonymous8:23 pm

    Jeb seems to be missing the thrust of the commentary as far as I can tell. The writer is simply suggesting that elected representatives need to keep their relationship with their constituents in mind at all times. If an MP (of any stripe) gets elected on the understanding that they will do their best to represent the desires of their constituents and *then* opts instead to 'govern from above' they are betraying that trust and (I think) should have to face the prospect of a mechanism for kicking them out immediately.

    Indeed it is not very reasonable to turn to the voters to determine their desires on every matter (seeing as they are unlikely to be well enough informed on most) but deciding 'what they need' starts to toy with hubris. If an MP doesn't have a good sense of what his consituents want by the time an election has occurred they are obviously doing a lousy job. If their intention is to simply woo a sufficient percentage of the population (to the tune of a pathetic forty-some percent in many cases) and then ram *their* notions of what is good down the voters throats they deserve to be run out of office, town and perhaps the country.

  4. It is precisely the candidate who blathers rubbish about “strong leadership” who will most certainly be the one who will build a platform out of polls and trends --- to such assholes, image is everything, principles are nothing. My piece was about the failure of the electorate to see the dangers in this kind of rhetoric. Competent people do not strut around trying to look dominant and exude machismo. Would you trust a surgeon, a chemist, or an accountant who walked around trying to look tough, carrying a blinking sign proclaiming “I Am The Greatest” and barking orders at random?
    As for our elected representatives, does anyone really imagine that the assortment of barely literate yokels in Canada’s parliament and the U.S.’s two legislative houses constitute a sophisticated aristocracy who know what’s best for us? In Canada’s current administration, a Prime Minister obsessed with turning his office into an Imperial Presidency modeled on George W. Bush, Jr.’s reign has created a cult of Leadership in which no member of his party is permitted any independent judgement of any kind. Conservative MPs are simply drone soldiers of the cult, and the notion of their representing their constituents is heresy. Most Canadians do not understand that when Steven Harper point blank refused to obey a direct order of Parliament, that he was committing treason. He is getting away with it. Though he is the only Prime Minister ever to be formally found in Contempt of Parliament, it is barely a visible issue in this election.
    This kind of situation is the product of a generation that cravenly yearns for a Big Daddy who will do their thinking for them, and will tell them lies “for their own good.”